Goodbye No. 3: Lehr passed away Jan. 31
The news of former Douglas High School standout Kevin Lehr’s passing came as suddenly as one of his trademark sweeps down the sideline.
Lehr’s heroics on the football field became almost as much of his lore as his confident sense of humor or the winsome grin he flashed effortlessly to all comers.
Sunday afternoon, mourners were left grasping for the remnants of the man they’d lost during a ceremony at the United Methodist Church in Gardnerville.
Lehr, who died unexpectedly in Las Vegas on Jan. 31 at the age of 26, will undoubtedly be missed.
Friends and family took turns regaling each other with tales of Kevin’s life for more than an hour at the service.
For anyone who saw him play, it was unforgettable.
Watching Lehr break through the pack and blow downfield became almost too commonplace during his senior year in 1997 (He broke free for 12 touchdown runs of 50 yards or more that season).
“That sure was something wasn’t it,” Lehr’s father, Steve, said. “I never saw anyone catch him from behind. He was just so fast and his instincts were so sharp.”
In a word, it was electric.
But it was that kind of electricity that drew people to Lehr.
At the memorial service, his former teammates used phrases like “larger than life” and “unforgettable” and if ever anyone was going to live up to the description, it was probably Lehr.
Spectators noted his speed, coaches noted his work ethic, teammates noted his leadership and friends noted his selflessness.
“You couldn’t find a better individual,” Douglas football coach Mike Rippee said. “He was a young man that had many friends, not only in sports, but outside of sports as well. He always put himself out there for everybody and was just tremendously kind-hearted.”
Everything he touched growing up, he seemed to excel at. It didn’t matter what it was.
He was an accomplished Outlaw Kart racer, played baseball and basketball, ran track and was an avid snowboarder and skateboarder. He pulled down honor roll grades in the classroom and later in life made his way into the Las Vegas business world, working his way up to Senior V.I.P. nightclub manager at Wynn Las Vegas Hotel.
But it was on the football field that he made his mark.
“He loved the sport,” Steve Lehr said. “He played it for 13 years, it was his passion. There was no doubt about that.”
He started playing in 1987, wearing No. 44 – after Stanford’s Tommy Vardell.
He helped lead the freshman squad at Douglas High to an undefeated season in 1994 and helped lead the junior varsity squad to a one-loss season the next year.
As a junior, now wearing No. 3 (No. 44 was already taken), he was on the first Douglas football team to make the playoffs, playing primarily on defense at linebacker.
“People talk so much about what kind of running back he was, but he was also one heck of an outside linebacker,” Rippee said. “He was very tough and had great speed to the ball. That’s how he approached running the football, he’d just take you on.
“He was on that first playoff team and his efforts on defense were a big reason we got there.”
Douglas fans got their first real taste of what Lehr could do with the ball in his hands in the Carson game of that season.
In freezing temperatures, Lehr followed an 85-yard kick return by Brady Ovard with a 5-yard touchdown run on the Tigers’ first play from scrimmage as Douglas went on to defeat the Senators 35-3 to clinch the school’s first playoff berth since 1978.
Lehr went on to run for 73 yards in the game, including a 49-yard run in the second half.
It was only a minor preview of what was to come.
In his senior year, Lehr became the stuff of small-town legend, running for school record totals in touchdowns in a season (27), touchdowns in a career (32) and average yards per carry in a carry (8.0).
He still ranks fourth on the all-time list for rushing yards in a career (1,805), third in yards in a season (1,597) and average yards per carry in a season (8.1).
For those who might be counting, that senior season totals equates to an average of more than two touchdowns per game.
“Just as big and physical as he was, he had one of the best years that anyone has ever had in a Douglas Tiger uniform,” Rippee said.
It was a late October battle at South Tahoe in 1997 that remains freshest on most memories.
“That South Tahoe game, that was one of the most prolific things I have ever seen,” Steve Lehr said. “You talk to people, that’s the one they always bring up.”
The game pitted the region’s two top offenses against each other, and Lehr wasted little time becoming the centerpiece of what has become known as one of the epic offensive matchups contested in the Northern 4A.
Lehr broke free for an 85-yard touchdown on the Tigers’ first play from scrimmage and basically didn’t stop running for the next 48 minutes of football.
The two teams combined for more than 1,100 yards of offense and 47 first downs, but Lehr ran wild for 354 yards and five touchdowns on 22 carries as Douglas picked up a crucial 52-38 win. Lehr had touchdown runs of 39, 45, 33 and 62 yards in the game as well.
“I just remember him breaking one long run after another,” Rippee said. “They’d score and then Kevin would come back and score. We had a great line that year, but we basically rode Kevin that game. He was the type of guy that would say give me the ball and I’ll do what I can with it.
“I don’t know if there has ever been a better game than that around here and I don’t know if any one person has ever had a better game than Kevin did.”
Tiger quarterback Chris Griffith passed for 263 yards while South Tahoe’s Bryan Bough carried the ball 30 times for 269 yards and quarterback Brett Uppendahl passed for an additional 245.
“That was just a great group of kids that year,” Steve Lehr said. “You had Chris Griffith, Brady Ovard, Troy Fontana, Beau Kruger and so many other great guys out there.
“There were so many big guys on the line too, Dan Crawford and Sili Mafua. All those guys opened up huge holes for him all year. It was just a great group of kids and they got to grow up playing together through Pop Warner.”
Lehr’s senior season didn’t do unnoticed by college recruiters either.
“We had this huge shoebox full of letters from Big 10 schools and Pac 10 schools,” Steve Lehr said. “A lot of schools were interested and Kevin would always get calls asking for game film and stats.”
As it was, the Lehrs took visits to Oregon, Washington State, Nevada and New Mexico State.
“Nevada came in kind of late, but we went up there and saw what they were all about,” Steve Lehr said. “Kevin wanted to play right away, coming off the season that he’d had, and New Mexico seemed like the best place to do that.”
Lehr entered training camp at No. 9 on the depth chart at running back, but had worked his way up to No. 2 by the time the season rolled around.
“The way they did it, if you made the traveling squad, the managers would come around and put the decals on your helmet and put the form in your locker for if you wanted to order tickets for your family,” Steve Lehr said. “I got this call from Kevin before their season-opener at Texas, and he said, ‘Dad, I looked in my locker and it’s all on there.'”
And so Lehr made his collegiate debut in front of 70,000 Texas fans after having played in last high school game in front of maybe 1,000 fans at Wooster.
“He told me after the game that he got out there and it was so loud he couldn’t even think,” Steve Lehr said. “It was really something. That was a proud moment for us.”
Another highlight of Kevin’s freshman year was the Aggies’ trip up to Reno to take on the Wolf Pack.
“People up here knew who he was and they were yelling for him,” Lehr said. “We had a big tailgate and he got out there to play during the game. It was pretty special.”
Lehr picked up a nagging knee injury on his left leg with two games left in the season.
The pain was enough to force Lehr to transfer out of school and come home for surgery.
“It was one of those things, the damage was enough to where the rehab dragged on for about a year,” Steve Lehr said. “It took a lot of time, a lot of hours, for him to get back in shape.”
Kevin enrolled at a school in the Bay Area to continue his course work but later got in touch with then-UNLV coach John Robinson.
“Oregon was in contact with him and so was UNLV,” Steve Lehr said. “Both schools wanted to give him another shot, and Kevin decided to take it down in Vegas.
“He went through spring drills down there, but at that level you have to be right on the money and his leg just wasn’t the same. He decided to hang it up and finish his degree down there.”
Shortly thereafter, he got into an internship program at Mandalay Bay and worked his way into the nightclub management profession at the Wynn.
At a memorial service held in Vegas a week ago, nearly 300 people showed up. The Sunday service in Carson Valley was standing room only as well.
“He was just one of those kids,” Steve Lehr said. “People enjoyed being around him.
“It was amazing to go to track meets and football games and watch the people come talk to Kevin afterward. People from other schools would come up and talk to him and hang out and laugh with him. He used to go to Reno and hang out with some of those guys he played against like (Wooster running back) Mitch Jones and (South Tahoe’s) Bryan Bough.
“He was fun to go watch. He was fun to be around.”
Dealing with the loss has been difficult for friends and family alike, Rippee said.
“For someone so young and with so much life ahead of him, we all just kind of throw up our hands and wonder what we can say,” Rippee said. “We have to dwell on what Kevin brought us while he was here – His positive nature, his willingness to do things for his friends, those are the things we have to take from what he gave us.
“I loved the kid, everybody did. There was nothing negative about Kevin, which makes it really easy to remember the positive. Kevin will go on affecting people for the rest of their lives. Our thoughts and prayers are certainly with his family.”
A memorial scholarship has been set up by Douglas Pop Warner to aid aspiring Douglas Tigers in paying their yearly dues. Donations can be sent to Douglas Pop Warner, P.O. Box 307, Minden, NV, 89423.
n Joey Crandall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (775) 782-5121, ext. 212.